WILLMAR — Before they will have the opportunity to win a seat on the Willmar City Council, representing Ward 1, two of three candidates must first successfully earn a place on the general election ballot.
Steve Dresler, Les Heitke and Michael O'Brien will appear on the Aug. 11 primary ballot for Ward 1 voters, located in the northern quarter of Willmar. The two who receive the most votes will move on to the general election for the seat to be vacated by current Councilor Kathy Schwantes, who chose not to seek re-election.
Steve Dresler, the safety manager at Marcus Construction, has served the Willmar community in a number of ways, as a youth coach, a board member with Habitat for Humanity and as a volunteer on the Willmar Destination Playground build. Being elected to the Willmar City Council is another way he hopes to serve the city.
"It is the opportunity to serve at a different level," Dresler said. "I thought I would like to try my hand and help the community."
If he wins in November, this would be Dresler's first elected position and he is willing and eager to dive in and learn all he can about the many issues that come to the council for action.
His volunteer service has shaped some of Dresler's areas of interest, areas he hopes to work on if elected to the council. The experience Dresler has gained with Habitat of Humanity has shown him the importance and necessity of workforce housing in Willmar for low to middle incomes. In the past few years, there have been new housing projects going up in Willmar but the need remains.
"We need to continue to expand those opportunities," Dresler said.
An increase in available housing would help Willmar economically as well, with the possibility of increased business expansion.
"Continue to grow downtown Willmar and the Highway 71 corridor," Dresler said.
As a member of the Invest in Willmar Local Option Sales Tax Board's subcommittee on stormwater projects, Dresler believes the sales tax projects are important, though in today's financial climate it might be challenging to complete them, at least right away.
"Are there other options we can look at" to help get those projects completed, Dresler said.
Dresler also has concerns about Willmar's water supply, in regard to meeting upcoming water quality regulations and making sure Willmar has enough water to meet future demands.
"We will have to do something," Dresler said.
He believes the city should use the tools available to help bring new economic development to the city, including tax increment financing and tax abatement.
"I am a pretty strong believer that it helps move the city forward," Dresler said.
Moving the city forward is one of Dresler's goals, and he believes to do that, the council must be willing to listen and collaborate.
"It takes a lot of communication, patience and listening," Dresler said. "We need to think about the bigger picture."
Dresler said he would rely on the experts, such as the city staff, to help him make decisions. He wants to be a leader who encourages, not micromanages.
"I would rather bring people along than push them," Dresler said.
Dresler is hoping voters will give him the chance to continuing serving his community in a new way.
"I would do the best that I could," Dresler said. "I would listen to all my constituents, not just Ward 1. We are all a community."
Les Heitke Jr.
Les Heitke Jr. is no stranger to the residents of Willmar, nor the Willmar City Council. He held a seat on the council from 1989 to 1994 and was mayor of Willmar from 1995 to 2010. Since then he has continued to serve Willmar in different capacities and is currently on the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission Joint Operations Board.
"I have a long history in Willmar," Heitke said. "I sincerely love and enjoy this community."
Willmar is a leader in the region that other cities look toward for guidance and continues to be in a strong place and Heitke would like to continue his service to the community by returning to the council.
"I want to contribute to that," Heitke said.
A supporter of Willmar's police and fire departments, Heitke wants to make sure they have the equipment, training and manpower needed to continue to keep Willmar safe.
"We have a healthy, strong and safe community here. We need to keep it that way. If we don't have good public safety, nothing else works," Heitke said.
As a member of the EDC operations board, Heitke knows how important it is for the city and EDC to work together, to bring new and expanded economic opportunities to Willmar. He is happy about the success in obtaining approval for the state Highway 23 gap projects.
"That is how the city of Willmar can influence transportation, is to work in conjunction with the EDC and the county and move forward," Heitke said.
Heitke would also like to see the city do more to lobby for itself in St. Paul. Willmar needs to share in person with legislators its successes and the good things going on in the city. Heitke has served as a registered lobbyist as an officer for the League of Minnesota Cities and the National League of Cities. He has seen the positive impact those face-to-face meetings can have.
"Otherwise we just get lost in the general discussion of outstate Minnesota," Heitke said. "And we don't have any strength that way."
A supporter of the work the city is doing in the Industrial Park and the creation of the Renaissance Zone, Heitke sees tools such as tax increment financing and tax abatement as needed. He also wants to make sure the local option sales tax projects are completed, because the longer the city waits, the more expensive it will become.
"I see them as positive tools for getting the work done," Heitke said. "If we had to rely solely on property tax or business tax, our community couldn't do this kind of work."
If elected, Heitke said he would bring a moderate voice to the council, one that isn't too far on either side of the political spectrum.
"I'm not a flaming liberal or a die-hard conservative," Heitke said.
He wants another chance to serve the community he loves.
"The experience in city government is what I have to offer," Heitke said. "I enjoy public service and I love the city of Willmar."
Michael O'Brien's path to file to run for the Willmar City Council started nearly three years ago when he took part in the Willmar Community Assembly, a weeks-long seminar about community government and how one can have an impact.
It was during those meetings people started urging O'Brien to again be more involved in local government. He previously served on the New London-Spicer School Board. He moved to Willmar a few years ago.
"People know who I am, I've been around forever," O'Brien said.
As a first step in his return, O'Brien ran and was elected to the Willmar School Board in 2018. Then people started urging him to run for the open Ward 1 seat on the Willmar City Council. After discussing it closely with his family, O'Brien decided to take the leap.
"Forty-five minutes before filing closed I signed it (affidavit of candidacy)," O'Brien said. "I just thought I needed to do it, to help the community."
He worked decades as a conservation officer. He has served as a paraprofessional at Kennedy Elementary School and as a driver for the Willmar Bus Company.
O'Brien has also been involved with Let's Go Fishing, the Southwest West Central Cooperative Board, Kandiyohi Area Conservation Association, Willmar Community Emergency Response Team as well as teaching thousands of local children about firearm safety and conservation. He has also worked with various city and county departments and agencies.
"I just like to help out," O'Brien said.
While O'Brien is interested in a lot of things, he said he does not have an agenda to bring to the council.
"I've never had an agenda on any of the councils or boards I've every been on," O'Brien said. "We work things out, look at things, dissect them and if it is the right thing, we do it. I work well with boards."
O'Brien will let the experts do their jobs and bring recommendations to the council. If he has questions or concerns, he will let them know, but he doesn't believe in micromanaging those who have more experience in their fields than he does.
"We can work together," O'Brien said. "That is what it is about, it is about teamwork."
Teamwork is very important to O'Brien and he feels it is imperative the council do better at it if the city is going to continue to succeed.
"Working together is key. If you don't, it will all fall apart," O'Brien said.
The financial uncertainties caused by the pandemic will have an impact on what comes to the council for decisions and what gets approved. Projects such as a new city hall, which O'Brien believes is needed, might have to be put on hold for the time being.
"There are going to be a lot of tough decisions being made," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said the campaign is not about him, but the people of Ward 1 and the city as a whole.
"This is about our community," O'Brien said. "This about doing the right thing for our community."
He also hopes his decision to run will encourage other people to get involved in the community somehow, because volunteers are needed.
"Stepping up and doing the right thing," O'Brien said.